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Women's hat fashion led to jobs for milliners, large Cedar Rapids company

The Lyman Bros. Company showroom is pictured. Fred A. and O.W. Lyman founded the Cedar Rapids millinery wholesale compan
The Lyman Bros. Company showroom is pictured. Fred A. and O.W. Lyman founded the Cedar Rapids millinery wholesale company in 1890, eventually erecting a seven-story headquarters building at Fourth Avenue and Third Street SE. Fred Lyman married Louise Ellis, daughter of Robert Ellis, one of the city’s founding fathers. (The History Center)
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In the late 1800s, millinery — the business of making hats for women — was one of the few professions a woman could go into on her own.

Victorian day caps, or bonnets, were still a thing in 1849 when Cedar Rapids was founded. Women decorated them with flowers, ribbons and lace.

By 1860, fancy bonnets gave way to fancy hats. Milliner was a standard occupation.

In 1869, the Cedar Rapids City Directory listed five milliners — all women.

Social codes of the day required women cover their heads. Not only was it improper to venture out without a hat, one’s headwear was a highly individualistic endeavor, expressing one’s identity and social class.

Women’s hats were huge by 1890, literally. They were wide-brimmed and stacked high with all kinds of lace, bows, flowers, feathers and even taxidermy-preserved hummingbirds.

Milliners had ready-to-wear hats in stock but also created customized hats to serve as the pièce de résistance for the era’s long, flowing dresses with long sleeves and high, choker-tight lace collars.

Some milliner shops sold materials and trimming, allowing customers to come in and work on their own hats.

Fashion & Business

Quality milliners made a name for themselves by establishing artist-like reputations. When making a custom hat, a milliner would consider her customer’s face shape, dress color and the type of event to be attended.

She would advise on the latest trends — whether ladies in Paris were wearing faille or satin, if cabbage roses were in vogue again.

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The milliner’s trimmers — the employees in the back of the shop who made most of the custom orders — might come out with inventory samples to help make the sale.

Success meant having the right materials in stock, using the right touch with each customer, managing staff effectively and handling the books.

It’s no wonder that literary references to milliners often characterized them as independent, savvy women.

Here come the men

In 1890, Fred A. and O.W. Lyman opened their Lyman Bros. millinery shop in Cedar Rapids at the Kimball building at 121 Third St. SE. The brothers had backgrounds in general store management and had worked in the millinery wholesale business in Chicago.

They set up their own wholesale millinery supply company in 1893, and it took off. The supply side was a lucrative business, given women’s hats were in high demand and milliners across the country were happy to find a single source for all their materials and trimmings.

The plumage industry — which procured exotic feathers from around the world — was a problematic component of millinery supply, leading to the decline of some bird species around the world. In fact, early efforts to save birds from the millinery trade led to creation of the Audubon Society.

Big business

The Lyman Bros. wholesale operation outgrew several downtown locations before the brothers built their own seven-story headquarters, which opened in 1915.

The building, at the corner of Fourth Avenue and Third Street SE, was called the Lyman-Stark Building. The name was changed to the Iowa Building after seven workers died in 1913 when the building’s framework collapsed.

The Lymans’ business used all of the new building, which was the largest of its kind west of the Mississippi. Every floor facilitated some component of hatmaking. The first floor featured a 60-by-80-foot retail space.

Every spring, hundreds of retail buyers flocked to Cedar Rapids for a big show of the latest millinery fashions. That was followed by a public show the following week.

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Hat sizes shrank as the First World War injected a period of modesty in millinery. In the 1920s, close-cropped cloche hats accentuated flapper hairstyles and dresses.

The number of milliners listed in the Cedar Rapids City Directory peaked at 12 in both 1918 and 1928, bookmarking an era in which the Lyman Bros. Company employed roughly 50 to 75 trimmers, five designers, a dozen traveling salesmen and a dozen support staff.

The company wound down shortly after Fred A. Lyman died in 1927. Brother O.W. had left Cedar Rapids years earlier to start a similar business in Denver.

Brims were back in fashion in the ’30s as hats started to get big and fancy again, but then World War II ushered in another era in which no one wanted to appear showy.

Hats Off

It’s believed that cars, hairstyling and hair oil killed the hat in America. Getting in and out of a car with a hat on was difficult.

Hairstyling came to make more sense than a hat — why cover up your ’do? And hair oil, of course, stained hats.

Cedar Rapids City Directories stopped using “millinery” as a business category in 1969.

Joe Coffey is a freelance writer and content marketer in Cedar Rapids. Comments: coffeygrande@gmail.com

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